The Benefits of Promoting Gender Diversity in Leadership

Emerging women leaders and senior leaders alike have an important role to play in ensuring the promotion of women from entry-level through the C-suite.

Mary Sharp Emerson

The key to achieving gender diversity at all levels of an organization is to ensure the success of women leaders in the earliest stages of their management career.

The corporate world has made progress improving gender diversity and bringing an increasing number of women into leadership roles at the executive and C-suite level. As of McKinsey’s 2018  Women in the Workplace  report, women comprise 19 percent of executive leadership positions. 

Despite this small step toward gender diversity in the C-suite, women of color continue to face significant barriers to entry into leadership roles. According to the same McKinsey report, women of color represent only 4 percent of C-suite positions. And as of a 2019  Harvard Business Review  study, there were no black women leading a Fortune 500 company.

Moreover, gender parity for all women remains elusive at lower and middle management, specifically within entry- and mid-level leadership roles. According to the most recent McKinsey data , women make up 48 percent of all entry-level hires but only 38 percent of first-level managers. 

What difference does that 10 percent make? 

A big one. Over the next five years, 1 million women will remain in entry-level or non-leadership roles while their male co-workers are promoted into more promising career paths. 

That long-term talent gap caused by the failure to promote women into entry- and mid-level management roles virtually guarantees that there will be a lack of qualified women for executive and C-suite leadership roles in the future. McKinsey refers to this talent gap as the  “broken rung”  on the leadership ladder.

Closing that long-term talent gap will have long-term benefits for organizational success .

But doing so requires more than simply pointing out unconscious bias, identifying hidden stereotypes and common microaggressions, and paying lip service to gender and racial equality. 

Instead, it requires a prolonged and multi-faceted commitment by both men and women leaders to identify the obstacles facing women in leadership roles, especially for women of color.  

Here are some actionable tools and strategies to help women leaders achieve success at the same rate as their male peers.

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Senior Leaders Must Show the Way Toward Gender Diversity

The success of emerging women leaders depends heavily on the mid-level and senior managers (still predominantly white men) who are primarily responsible for their promotion. 

Thus, mid-level and senior leaders have an active role to play in ensuring that emerging women have the same opportunities for advancement, promotion, and career growth as their male co-workers.

Establish clear job performance evaluation criteria

According to  Women in the Workplace 2018 , women are less likely to get credit for successes and more likely to take criticism for failures. They often must provide more evidence of their competence and are more likely to have their judgement and decisions questioned.

These subtle barriers are even more common for women of color than for their white counterparts. For instance, women of color are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be mistaken for someone in a more junior role. According to the  HBR , nearly 50 percent of black and Latina scientists report being mistaken for administrative or janitorial staff.

Ensuring that women are fairly evaluated compared to their male counterparts through the hiring and promotion process requires clear and unbiased evaluation criteria. Moreover, employees must have the opportunity to highlight bias and identify stereotypes when encountered. 

Analyze corporate HR data by gender AND by race

While many companies track pay and other HR data by gender or by race, very few track by both. Yet according to a recent  Payscale  study, women of color make less even than white women at the beginning of their careers, a trend which only widens throughout their careers. 

Tracking critical HR data by a full suite of metrics, including both gender and race, will highlight potentially hidden disparities and help ensure that women of color, in particular, do not “fall through the cracks” between gender and race. 

Actively prepare women for leadership roles

As with men, women are more likely to be promoted if they are actively coached on career advancement. Senior leaders must ensure that emerging women leaders are given the same opportunities as their male counterparts to showcase their abilities, stretch their roles, network with senior leaders, and promote their visibility at the executive level.

Develop nuanced strategies for sponsorship

Women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Many organizations have moved away from formal sponsorship programs because senior leaders can be wary of expending political capital on employees they may not be sure of 100 percent.

Mentorship versus sponsorship need not be an either-or proposition, however. 

As noted in a  2019 report  in Harvard Business Review, sponsorship, when done thoughtfully and strategically, can—and should—evolve authentically through a range of professional “support” roles.  

Discover the value of diverse leadership styles

Understanding the various ways in which men and women work, communicate, and lead is a critical step in promoting and achieving gender parity. Incorporating and encouraging those differences provides strength and flexibility to an organization’s leadership, and that diversity of thought can promote organizational success.

Be willing to engage in honest discussions of gender and racial bias

Enabling honest discussions about gender bias can be difficult for many managers. Adding factors of race into that discussion can make a difficult discussion feel impossible. 

Yet because women of color continue to experience specific microaggressions and hidden stereotypes at a rate greater than their white counterparts,diversity training programs must be designed to take an  “intersectional approach”  that incorporates open discussions of racial as well as gender bias in the workplace.

Make Gender Diversity an Essential Corporate Goal

Unfortunately, upward of  20 percent  of employees continue to feel that their organization’s commitment to gender diversity is little more than window dressing, while their commitment to promoting the leadership capabilities of women of color is practically nonexistent. 

For example, 41 percent of companies have specific targets for women leadership in senior and executive roles. However,  less than a third  have those same goals for gender parity at the level of emerging leaders. And corporate-wide targets designed to promote racial parity often neglect to incorporate gender. 

While many companies claim to be family friendly, women with children continue to pay a very real  penalty  for the so-called “second shift” of housework and child-rearing.

Thus, leaders at every level of the organization must share an ongoing commitment to actionable policies promoting gender and racial parity of all levels of leadership. They must actively work to identify and eliminate the very real obstacles that currently prevent talented and ambitious women, including women of color, from taking the next step into leadership.  

Without such decisive and critical steps, “the broken rung” will continue to inhibit women’s ability to lead and succeed, while organizations are left without the benefits and successes that stem directly from incorporating a true diversity of voices at the top. 

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About the Author

Digital Content Producer

Emerson is a Digital Content Producer at Harvard DCE. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and Yale University and started her career as an international affairs analyst. She is an avid triathlete and has completed three Ironman triathlons, as well as the Boston Marathon.

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Why everyone should prioritize gender equality in leadership

April 21, 2021 | Written by: Rozita Dadras

Categorized: Business | Recruitment

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Few organizations make gender equality in leadership a formal business priority, but those that do outperform.    

Despite abundant evidence that gender equality in leadership is good for business, an overwhelming majority of organizations say advancing women into leadership roles is not a formal business priority. In fact, women hold only 18 per cent of senior leadership positions among 2,300 organizations surveyed worldwide. In other words, men occupy approximately 82 per cent of the most influential roles in today’s organizations. Also, promoting women is not a formal business priority at 79 per cent of surveyed organizations. Respondents estimate it could take more than 50 years to close this gap. 

DID YOU READ: Nordic Organizations Now Need More than 11 Times Longer to Close Today’s Skills Gap  

Companies can make changes to help turn the tide much faster, and there’s a good reason to do so. We discovered a small cohort of exceptional organizations (about 12 per cent of respondents) that are more proactive in the push for gender equality in leadership. They report that they are outperforming their competition in profitability, revenue growth, innovation, and employee satisfaction. We call these organizations “First Movers.”

First Movers acknowledge their responsibility to take action and say they believe gender inclusiveness will result in enhanced organizational success. More than 80 per cent have elevated gender-equitable leadership to a strategic business imperative. 

From our analysis of the First Movers, we have identified four key practices that can help other organizations close the gender gap in leadership. Read the report below to learn about the practices your organization can use to create an inclusive corporate culture. At IBM we think that all employees should have equal opportunities to grow their careers. You can see our current job openings here.

While IBM has been a leader in corporate diversity and inclusion for decades, 2020 was a reset, and 2021 should be looked forward to. Click here to read the newly released 2020 Diversity & Inclusion report, which outlines actions focused on driving systemic change.

Advancing gender equity is a clear win. But doubling down on pre-COVID approaches won’t get organizations where they need to be. Read more about this in the following report.

gender equality in leadership essay

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at  [email protected] .

gender equality in leadership essay

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The relationship between gender and leadership

April 18, 2021 by rpw5248

Gender differences are issues that are being discussed in society. People’s different expectations of men and women provide different opportunities for the two characters. The conflict between the role of women in society and the role of leadership will lead to prejudice against women as leaders in working environment. People would think that women are incapable of being promoted. And women who have been given a certain role for a long time will form their own identity consciousness and think that they are marginalized in the workplace. And this obstacle on the path of career advancement is the glass ceiling (Hamel, 2021).

In society, women have been trying to balance the roles of work and family. The society’s concern for successful men is career, and the concern for successful women is career and family. This kind of glass ceiling will invisibly reduce the competitiveness of women, and women will subconsciously think that their abilities and competitiveness are insufficient, thus lacking self-confidence. And this kind of consideration will make it difficult for women to reach the position of leader on the path of career development. According to the research results, there is no obvious difference between the leadership of male and female leaders (Hamel, 2021). It shows that it is often a stereotype that people think that women are incapable of leadership positions.

Compared with male leaders, female leaders have some common characteristics in career development. They will have clear career goals, and understand their self-worth and social values. When facing role changes at different career stages, women will balance family and work. If they can get the support and recognition of the people around them in the company, women can achieve good results between the two characters. Female leaders pay more attention to cooperation, they will give employees more opportunities to participate in decisions, and their leadership style is more in line with the expectations of their subordinates. Also, female leaders work harder to carry out reforms and use their strength to win the trust and respect of their followers. In the face of subordinates, female leaders are more willing to help them develop their potential, and this series of actions have allowed the company to gain more value.

Companies and organizations should consider a diversified and inclusive corporate culture, give women more opportunities for growth, and learn to appreciate the innovation that different cultures, regions, and people with different characteristics will bring to the company. When companies provide more opportunities to different people, the employees can continue to learn, enrich their workplace experience and knowledge and skills, and form more interactions between leach other, which can bring more possibilities to the company. In addition, when women have more opportunities, they should seize every opportunity. For prejudice and obstacles, women must learn to overcome, and to improve themselves through learning, reflection and balance of the role.

I think that in corporate roles, we should try to dilute people’s stereotypes about gender. When choosing a leadership position, a person is not given more responsibility because of his/her gender. We should call on companies to give full play to the talents of each leader and create an equal and competitive working environment for male and female leaders. In this society full of innovation and possibilities, we should let men and women stand on the same position to compete for leadership positions.

Hamel, R. (2021).  Lesson 13: Leadership and Diversity

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In this chapter, the topic of gender discrimination within the realm of organizational leadership is approached in a very specific way. We will not be exploring the various normative frameworks that could support equality in the workplace, such as appeals to basic human rights, social contracts, deontological duties or utilitarian concerns. Instead, we will seek to understand the tacit gender prejudices inherent in organizational practices and the embodied effects of such prejudices for the individuals involved. We will find that despite an overt acknowledgement of equal rights and opportunities, many women and men still experience very real barriers in terms of their access to leadership opportunities. In many cases, the so-called “glass ceiling” or as the metaphor has recently been recast, the “leaking pipe-line” (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2007), cannot be explained by the existence of discriminatory policies. Instead, we will investigate the subtle gendered prejudices and expectations about how women and men lead that lie at the heart of the challenges many individuals face in finding their leadership role in organizations.

We will see that these tacit prejudices and expectations are institutionalized in everyday practices and eventually shape individuals’ embodied existence within organizations. This may cause some women, and some men who fail to conform to gender stereotypes, to feel the urge to leave the organization, refuse leadership positions, or take them on with great discomfort and difficulty. In this chapter, the implications that the interplay between gender and organizational practices has for leadership are unpacked, and alternative leadership models and gender inclusive strategies of resistance and change are explored.

Approaches to sexual difference and its implications for leadership theory

Within the feminist literature, there have been a number of approaches to understanding the differences between men and women and addressing matters of equality and opportunity. In this section, we try to draw out the implications that each of these approaches could have for leadership theory. It will become clear that our beliefs about the origins and manifestation of sexual differences has implications for our thinking about the leadership role(s) women and men can play in organizations.

For instance, Elizabeth Grosz (2005, 6) distinguishes between “egalitarian feminists” and “difference feminists.” Egalitarian feminists were concerned with exposing the injustices of patriarchal societies, and fighting for equal rights and opportunities for men and women. They exposed the way in which sexist prejudices institutionalized inequality, and perpetuated the marginalization of women in society. They claimed equal opportunities for women by arguing that men and women were the bearers of equal human rights and dignity. The gains that these early feminists have made are evident in the fact that at least on paper, most organizations claim to uphold equality in the workplace and have institutionalized non-discrimination policies on the basis of sex, race, or sexual preference. However, the acknowledgment of equality on the basis of abstract principles of human dignity and respect did not come without a price. In the first place, it made it possible for organizations to overtly claim principled acquiescence with the idea of human rights, dignity and equality, while tacitly perpetuating some of their established practices and prejudices institutionally. Secondly, the fact that the discourse is centered on “equality” made it difficult for women to lobby around issues specific to women in the workplace, out of fear that this might undermine the argument that they are essentially “the same” as men. This approach therefore cannot account for women’s unique contributions to their organizations and society in general. Furthermore, the importance of the very real fight against oppression cannot be recognized or acknowledged from this perspective (Ely and Padavic 2007, 1126).

The subtle gendered prejudices and expectations about how women and men lead lie at the heart of the challenges many individuals face in finding their leadership role in organizations

In the leadership realm, the “equality” discourse often confronted women with the challenge to “do as men have always done,” or better. As such, they had to adopt leadership practices that existed within the patriarchal organizations in which they found themselves. In the process these female pioneers often unwittingly perpetuated predominantly “male” leadership stereotypes. While these equality-feminists succeeded in making the argument for equal rights and opportunities, their efforts did not allow women to develop their individual leadership styles, nor did they challenge existing stereotypes about leadership.

An alternative approach to feminism is to insist on respect for the differences between men and women, and an appreciation of the unique role that women could play in the workplace. Feminists who have adopted this approach include important figures like Carol Gilligan, Nancy Hartsock and Nancy Chodorow. These women emphasized the social and psychological specificities of the feminine gender identity as well as the way it shapes individuals’ perspective on their role in society. They argue that women have their own unique “voice” or perspective that should be included within societal discourses. From the perspective of these “feminists of difference,” it was possible to argue that the unique capacities, traits and predispositions of women were “functional” in terms of supplementing gaps that were typically present within the existing leadership corps (Ely and Padavic 2007, 1125).

The problem with this approach is that it tends to set up essentialist dichotomies between men and women. For instance, it contends that women are more caring, more communicative, and more cooperative than men. Surveys, like that used by the International Women’s Forum in 1984, tended to solidify existing gender biases in their categorization of traits that respondents identified within themselves. In these surveys, female traits included being excitable, gentle, emotional, submissive, sentimental, understanding, compassionate, sensitive and dependent. Male traits included being dominant, aggressive, tough, assertive, autocratic, analytical, competitive and independent. Being adaptive, tactful, sincere, conscientious, reliable, predictable, systematic and efficient were considered gender-neutral traits (Rosener 2011, 29).

An unfortunate consequence of this essentialist approach is that women are always associated with the inferior characteristic of the binary opposition: women are emotional, not rational, women are impulsive, not goal-directed, etc. Empirical studies suggest that most respondents regard the various stereotypical male leadership traits as typical of the behavior of a “good manager” (Gmür 2006, 116). Out of the number of ideal managerial traits only two “feminine” traits are considered desirable for managers, i.e. being “adept at dealing with people” and “cooperative.”

All the other ideal traits, like being analytical, competent, confident, convincing, decisive, efficient, fore-sighted, independent etc. are associated with the male stereotype. We will attend to these gendered stereotypes in more detail in section three.

Unfortunately these prejudices have been uncritically absorbed into some business ethics discourses. This has led to the claim that feminist ethics essentially pursues “care ethics.” Borgerson (2007, 485) has commented on the problematic conflation between feminist ethics and care ethics within the business ethics literature. She (2007, 488) points out that business ethics textbooks like that of Crane and Matten (Oxford University Press, 2004), describe “care ethics” as a feminine approach that solves ethical problems through “intuition” and “personal subjective assessment.” Though Borgerson does not deny that certain articulations of care ethics display feminist concerns, she argues that the association of care ethics with feminism tends to essentialize the gendered experience. Because of this, a proper understanding of the causes of gender prejudices and marginalizing practices is never developed. She also points out that there are other “caring” ethical approaches, which are not at all feminist in orientation, such as that of Emmanuel Levinas and other philosophers working on what can be described as an “ethics of proximity.”

It is clear that both egalitarian feminism and difference feminism fail to address the origins of the stereotypes that exist about men and women. An important question that animated feminist discourses is whether the differences between men and women were the result of nature or nurture, or both. In other words, are men and women determined by their biology or are they shaped by their personal circumstances and their cultural and social milieu? In order to address these issues, many feminists invested considerable energy into making the case for a distinction between sex and gender. While sex refers to those aspects of physiology and anatomy that are biologically determined, gender is not. “Gender” is the result of early childhood experiences, societal dynamics, power interests, organizational politics and the social constructions that are inevitably part of all these spheres of life (Ridgeway and Cornell cited in Ely and Padavic 2007, 1128). The same goes for the distinction between female and feminine. The fact that many individuals are born “female” does not necessarily mean that they will necessarily conform to stereotypically feminine ways of being and operating in the world. The powerful implications of this distinction lie in the fact that though we may all be born with specific biological sexual characteristics, much can be changed in the way our gender predispositions develop as we grow older and function within society.

Social constructions and “the lived body”

Helpful as the distinction between sex and gender, female and feminine may be, acknowledging “gender” as a social construction may not take us far enough. In fact, the distinction between sex and gender may rely on an uncritical acceptance of the dichotomy between nature and culture, which posits the body as a fixed entity. As a result, we may underestimate how institutional practices of socializing and enculturation, i.e. everyday habits, impact on our bodies and our physical experience of our world.

The limits of viewing gender primarily as a social construction lie in its incapacity to acknowledge the material reality of being a woman or a man in an organizational context. Here, the work of feminists such as Judith Butler, Iris Marion Young and Elizabeth Grosz becomes invaluable. They help us understand that though we might readily agree that gender is a social construction solidified through discourses and practices, we should not underestimate the fact that these discourses and practices have very real effects on the body. In Gender Trouble , Judith Butler (1990) has convincingly argued that gender is a social performance, and that the sexed body is derived from such social performativity. Gender is therefore not a mere linguistic term that denotes social and cultural perceptions; instead, it is enacted within real-life practices, and as such, physical changes and adjustments in bodily comportment occur incrementally over time.

In her seminal essay “Throwing like a girl,” Iris Young (2005) argues convincingly that the way in which women use their bodies, or develop their physical motor skills, has everything to do with how they are physically oriented in the world from a very early age. Girls are often told that they are fragile, may get hurt more easily than boys, that they must seek help when facing physical challenges, or avoid it altogether. As such, they experience the world as a more threatening place, leading to a distinct type of bodily comportment, like keeping their legs close together when sitting or walking, crossing their arms protectively across their breasts, or carrying objects close to their bodies. They also develop patterns of cooperation rather than competition. These practices are not merely social in nature, they lead to real changes in women’s bodies and ways of being in the world.

This however need not lead to deterministic or essentialistic conclusions about men and women. Young (2005) argues that we have to understand the interplay between facticity and freedom. Facticity refers to those biological traits and predispositions that we are born with and which develop as part of our physical existence over time, whereas freedom involves the projects that we select to pursue throughout our lives. Both are involved in our embodied experience and actions in the world. Young (2004) employs Toril Moi’s alternative to the construct of gender: the so- called “lived body.” She defines it as: “a unified idea of a physical body acting and experiencing in a specific socio-cultural context; it is the body- in-situation.” Moi disputes the clear distinction between nature and culture by arguing that the lived body is always encultured. According to Young each individual has the ontological freedom to respond to her facticity, to construct and express herself through her projects. Through her accomplishments, it becomes possible to transform her surroundings and relationships, often in cooperation with others. However, the unfortunate reality is that many individuals experience situations in which their surroundings make them feel distinctly uncomfortable.

The construct of the “lived body” allows us to make very distinct gains: it undermines the nature versus culture dichotomy and also takes us beyond essentialist gender binaries by creating spaces for ontological freedom that could function in our design of our life project(s). However, Young argues that this does not mean that we should give up the concept of gender, since it plays an important part in social structures and their implications for creating or curtailing people’s freedoms to pursue their life projects. “Gender” is a conceptual tool that allows us to describe and diagnose the way in which the differences between men and women, and their relationships with one another, are institutionalized. As such, it also creates the conceptual space from within which these stereotypes can be challenged.

The value of combining the construct of the lived body with the concept of gender is that it allows us to pose a series of questions on various levels. On the one hand, gender constructs help us unpack the assumptions that underpin certain leadership expectations that exist in organizations, as well as the prejudices to which they give rise. What we may discover is that a series of binaries are mapped onto male and female bodies in a way that makes it very difficult for individuals to develop patterns that fall outside the stereotypical gender molds. However, without the category of gender, it becomes next to impossible to diagnose the problem and describe it in any meaningful way. One has to refer to the gendered male/female stereotypes to describe their operation in practice.

Such descriptions allow resistance to emerge. We may therefore do well to explore the way in which male and female characteristics play out within their institutional leadership roles, in order to explore the assumptions and prejudices that support it. This may allow us to explore different models and practices by which to incrementally modify the lived experience of both men and women.

“Gender” is a conceptual tool that allows us to describe and diagnose the way in which the differences between men and women, and their relationships with one another, are institutionalized

Gender constructs in organizational leadership and implications for the lived body

One of the central assumptions that have become institutionalized within many organizational practices is the notion that women are society’s care-takers. This care-taking takes place primarily as unpaid labor within the private sphere (Young 2005). In the workplace this manifests in the designation of any kind of job that requires care of individuals’ bodily, emotional or domestic needs as “female jobs,” with a concomitant expectation of it being compensated at a lower level. Since there is general acceptance that leadership positions within organizations typically go beyond care-taking towards roles that require strong direction, control and agency, women may often be excluded from consideration for such opportunities.

It comes as no surprise that gendered modes of leadership are described as either “agentic” or “communal” (Eagly and Carli 2007, 68). Women’s concern for treating others compassionately is thought to display a communal orientation, whereas men’s agentic orientation makes them more capable of assertion and control. When women display the traits of the communal orientation, such as being affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, and sympathetic, as well as interpersonally sensitive, gentle, and soft-spoken, they are seen as not agentic enough and hence not capable of leadership. But when they display the agentic behaviors, i.e. aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, and forceful, as well as self-reliant and individualistic, they are seen as not communal enough, and they tend to be accused of inauthenticity.

In terms of leadership research, a gendered binary also seems to be operative in the distinction between an “entity” approach that offers a “realist” perspective on leadership, and a more “relational” approach that offers a “constructivist” perspective. Uhl-Bien (2011) associates the realism/entity approach as more masculine in orientation and the constructionist/relational approach as more feminine. The “realist” approach focuses on individuals and their views regarding participation in interpersonal relationships. By contrast, the relational perspective is primarily concerned with being-in-relation and moving away from hierarchical control (Uhl-Bien 2011, 67).

A further gendered dichotomy in the leadership realm is that between so-called “transactional” and “transformational” leadership styles. Men’s leadership styles are regularly described as transactional, whereas women leaders are often seen as more transformational in orientation. Transformational leadership is described as a relationship of mutual stimulation between leaders and followers, which converts followers into leaders and also has the capacity to make leaders moral agents (Werhane 2011, 44). It has been argued that women’s capacity to inspire and motivate staff is a result of their enhanced interpersonal skills. Further characteristics that supposedly make women better transformational leaders than men include their willingness to share power and information, their tendency to encourage participation and inclusion, their propensity to instill a sense of self-worth in others and their ability to get employees energized and excited about their work (Psychogios 2007, 174). Rosener (2011, 28) reports that women are more likely to use power that is based on charisma, work record and contacts than power based on organizational position and the ability to reward and punish others. Women successfully employ interactive leadership strategies, which entail encouraging participation, sharing power and information, and enhancing the self-worth of others (Rosener 2011, 21–24). Unfortunately, the fact that women are considered to be more natural transformational leaders does not always serve them well in organizations. Reuvers et al. (2008) has found that if men display the traits of transformative leadership, it has a far greater effect on innovation than if women display these same traits. Psychogios (2007) comes to the even more disconcerting conclusion that “feminized management” tends to aggravate the exploitation of female labor instead of creating new management opportunities for women. His research shows that if occupations are “feminized” there is a corresponding decline in salaries and wages.

According to Rosener (2011) transformational leadership cannot be exclusively associated with women: some women succeed by adhering to the traditional male model, whilst some men adopt a transformational leadership style. Both men and women describe themselves as having a mix of “female,” “male” and “gender neutral” traits (Rosener 2011, 28). However, this does not mean that many women do not identify with gender stereotypes and employ them in their self-descriptions. For instance, further support for associating specific leadership characteristics with the feminine can be found in Nicola Pless’s (2006, 248) account of the self-description of Anita Roddick, founder and former CEO of the Body Shop. Roddick personally claimed that: “I run my company according to feminine principles … principles of caring, making intuitive decisions, not getting hung up on hierarchy…”

Unfortunately, many prejudices are perpetuated in and through these gender stereotypes, with real effects on men and women in the workplace. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Hermina Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru (2009), discuss the research finding that women lack “vision.” They explore the puzzling fact that studies have shown that women out-perform men on all the leadership attributes considered important by respondents, except when it comes to envisioning. In the INSEAD study on which Ibarra and Obodaru (2009) reported, vision was defined as the skill to recognize new opportunities within the environment and to determine a strategic direction for the organization. In terms of leadership practice it seems as if the intuitive reading of opportunities within the environment becomes less important than the second aspect of the definition, i.e. determining a strategic direction. Ibarra and Obodaru (2009, 67–68) attribute the perception that women are weaker at “envisioning” than men to the fact that women may think differently about “vision.” Female executives insist that for them, strategy emerges in and through a commitment to detail and a very hands-on approach to the implementation of action plans. They are less prone to the formulation of lofty ideals and “big ideas,” or experiments with “big, hairy audacious goals,” as Collins and Porras (2002) refer to it. This may be explained by the fact that many women have a fear of over-promising and under-delivering, whereas men tend not to have the same reservations. Again, girls’ early experience of the world as a more threatening place may go some way towards explaining this difference in thinking about what “vision” means. What emerges clearly from this analysis, is an awareness of the tacit gendered assumptions about “vision.” In practice, these tacit assumptions may have a very negative impact on how women are perceived as leaders. Holt et al. (2009) explain that the capacity to articulate a clear vision for the organization is strongly associated with the credibility of a leader. If women are not perceived as “visionary” leaders, they may not be perceived as credible either.

Gendered assumptions are also evident in the way people talk about what they expect from their leaders and from themselves as leaders. In a study conducted by Metcalfe and Linstead (2003, 110) the researchers found that the leadership style of one of their female subjects was described by her colleagues and staff as “masculine” and “authoritarian.” Not surprising, they argue, if one considers the remnants of the masculinist discourse in words like “man-ager.” In her description of herself, Nia displays contradictory views on the role that femininity plays in leadership, which serves to downplay the importance of her feminine traits. Instead, she re-inscribes masculine leadership models in the way she talks about her successes and difficulties. This case demonstrates how difficult it is to develop an alternative discourse on leadership. It also suggests that, in-and-of-itself, a linguistic analysis of this problem is unlikely to precipitate the desired change. More thought needs to be given to how the embodied reality of men and women and their ability to resist the gendered stereotyping of leadership are circumscribed and curtailed by these discourses.

Many prejudices are perpetuated in and through these gender stereotypes, with real effects on men and women in the workplace

According to Ely and Padavic (2007, 1129) masculinity and femininity are embodied realities as well as belief systems. It is evident in the muscle tensions and body postures that men and women display, and as such, contribute to a further solidification of gender stereotypes. For instance, “style constraints,” pertaining to their way of speaking, gestures and appearance, is a reality that many female executives have to deal with (Eagly and Carli 2007, 64). These constraints impact on the way women can communicate and conduct themselves within everyday business interactions. Women often feel that their less assertive speaking style or hand-gestures may be deemed inappropriate. Disconcertingly, 34% of African American women feel that their physical appearance is more crucial in attaining career success than their actual abilities (Hewlett et al. 2005).

It is also interesting to analyze the way in which people’s clothing and accessories both express and re-inscribe their own personal reading of the power dynamics and expectations within an institution. Women leaders tend to wear corporate suits to suggest formality and control— traits that are often associated with the stereotypical male leader. Wearing high heels and walking with a certain confident stride suggests the power and competence that are assumed to be the ideal characteristics of leaders. In men, suits and ties are carefully chosen to tap into specific states of mind, based on the theory that certain colors signify confidence and calm composure. In her essay, “Women recovering our clothes,” Young (2005) discusses the split image that results from women seeing themselves, while at the same time being aware of others looking at them. This split image often gives rise to a complex self- conception involving several different images—not all of them always of a woman’s own making. For instance, a woman might imagine that she is seen in a particular way when wearing certain clothes, which may or may not be how she imagines herself to be. Clothing and accessories become various kinds of prostheses that allow us to fashion ourselves to the dominant aesthetic as we experience it. In effect we extend and amend our embodiment in response to tacit messages about what is considered “appropriate” within organizational contexts. The question is who and what informs this dominant aesthetic, and what are the ethical implications of this fashioning? Some feminists resist the objectifying and fetishizing implications of women living “in the male gaze.” However, in the leadership realm, this could have further discriminating effects. Could women’s mirroring of male attire in the workplace be a tacit acceptance of the fact that men are more desirable leaders than women, that they are more powerful, more in control, more reliable? If so, everyday dress-code could contain the clues as to why gender prejudices persist in the workplace.

But how is it possible to resist conforming to the tacit expectations we experience in the workplace and to eventually change the stylized practices that perpetuate prejudices? In the next section, we explore alternative leadership models and seek to reconceptualize certain important gendered notions within the leadership realm.

Potential sites and visions of change

In this section, we will investigate whether it is possible to transform leadership theory and practice through an engagement with the many different ways in which both men and women approach their leadership roles in organizations. What seems to be required is leadership models that allow individuals to lead in their own unique ways, instead of conforming to some pre-conceived gender expectations. We will therefore explore theoretical models that may create a framework for understanding and adopting uniquely individual leadership styles. In the process, we hope to recast important leadership notions, such as “authenticity” and “vision,” in more gender-inclusive terms.

Systemic leadership

In a recent publication entitled: Leadership, Gender, and Organizations (Werhane and Painter-Morland 2011), a number of scholars related recent developments in relational leadership or complexity leadership to the way women lead in organizations. One of the interesting points made by these scholars is that even though complexity leadership seems to describe leadership styles that are associated with the socially constructed “feminine” style of leadership, it is a model that suits many men’s leadership preferences as well.

From the perspective of systemic leadership, leadership is not necessarily restricted to individuals appointed to positions of authority. In this respect, it represents a significant departure from so-called “great man theories” about leadership, with their implicit sexist assumptions. Systemic leadership is informed and supported by a variety of discourses—from Peter Senge’s work on organizational learning and change to Karl Weick’s sense-making theories. The basic contention is that an organization cannot properly learn, change or create meaning without the sharing of information and cooperative agreements. Senge and Kaufer (2000) speak about “communities of leaders,” while others make reference to “distributed leadership” (Friedman 2004), or relational leadership (Maak and Pless 2006).

An influential definition of systemic leadership is provided by Collier and Esteban (2000, 208) who describe leadership as “the systemic capability, distributed and nurtured throughout the organization, of finding organizational direction and generating renewal by harnessing creativity and innovation.” Understanding leadership as an emergent, interactive and dynamic property allows one to distribute leadership responsibilities and privileges throughout an organization’s workforce (Edgeman and Scherer, 1999). Systemic leadership involves a number of different leadership dynamics. Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007, 311) describe these as “administrative,” “adaptive” and “enabling” leadership. Administrative leaders play the more formal leadership roles of planning and coordinating organizational activities. It is important to note that though systemic leadership functions are understood in more distributed terms, this does not necessarily mean that formal leadership positions and hierarchies become redundant or have to be abolished. In fact, it is very important that gender-sensitivity is encouraged in and through key managerial tasks, such as setting performance targets, conducting performance reviews, and performing mentoring activities. As such, it is important that those appointed to formal leadership positions are gender- sensitive and play an active role in thinking through the gender implications of their everyday business decisions. Guaranteeing flexible work schedules and childcare facilities for both working mothers and fathers can go a long way towards distributing the childcare responsibilities more equitably. Setting realistic performance targets for the promotion and retention of female leaders, committing to a certain number of female candidates for each leadership vacancy, considering the composition of selection teams and communicating leadership opportunities more transparently have all been mentioned as ways in which management buy-in and commitment to women’s leadership can be communicated (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2007). Mentoring has also been identified as an extremely important factor in the success of women leaders, and both male and female executives must commit to providing it (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2007).

Important as the role of administrative leaders may be, real change in practices and belief systems requires the acknowledgement and nurturing of other leadership roles. So-called “adaptive” leadership functions as a “collaborative change movement” that allows adaptive outcomes to emerge in a nonlinear fashion as a result of the dynamic interactions of interdependent agents. The direction and priorities that guide an organization’s activities therefore develop inadvertently as an unforeseen and unforeseeable consequence of the daily interactions between many different members of the organization instead of emanating from those at the top of the managerial hierarchy. This approach allows any member of an organization to take initiative and responsibility (i.e. assume a leading role) when and where the situation calls for it. It allows individuals to harness their personal strengths to lead in their own, unique ways.

Adaptive leadership does not mimic stereotypical leadership behaviors, but instead requires a unique response tailored to a specific situation and set of relationships. In this respect it allows women leaders more scope to develop their style of leadership. The challenge however lies in acknowledging this kind of leadership, and not exploiting adaptive leaders by appropriating the positive results of their efforts without any recognition or compensations. Unfortunately, this is what often happens to female leaders who fulfill leadership tasks spontaneously without demanding recognition.

It is important that those appointed to formal leadership positions are gender-sensitive and play an active role in thinking through the gender implications of their everyday business decisions

The third leadership role that Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) refer to is that of “enabling” leadership, which provides the catalyst to facilitate the emergence of adaptive leadership within organizations. It often involves a complex interplay between administrative and adaptive leadership. Enabling leadership often does require some authority, but also entails an active involvement in the boundary situations that organizational members confront. Enabling leaders must be capable of engaging in cooperative strategies, fostering interaction, supporting and enhancing interdependency and stimulating the adaptive tension that allows for the emergence of new patterns. For instance, Vivienne Cox, the CEO of BP Alternative energies, described herself as a “catalyst,” who does not drive change, but allows it to emerge.

Uhl Bien et al. (2007) make it clear that all three leadership roles necessarily coexist within organizations. The question that remains however is how adaptive and enabling leadership can be acknowledged, recognized and remunerated within organizations. Unfortunately, it could easily become the “unpaid labor” that women and men with alternative leadership styles perform without formal recognition. As such, it could inadvertently lead to the exploitation of these individuals in the workplace. Nevertheless, the systemic leadership model is important because it challenges us to rethink certain leadership stereotypes that are often uncritically perpetuated within organizations.

Rethinking authenticity

“Authenticity” is often associated with the consistent way in which an individual acts in accordance with his or her personal traits and beliefs. In practice however, this can amount to a kind of inflexibility that renders the individual incapable of adapting to different or dynamic situations and relationships. From the perspective of systemic leadership, another understanding is required, namely that leadership roles, and hence leadership responses, are fluid. This idea is well represented in contemporary leadership literature. Porras et al. (2007, 198), for instance, explain that the best leaders realize that their role might change over time: an individual who works under your direction and supervision today might become the person to whom you report on another day. In time the same person could even become a customer or a vendor. It is important to maintain the relationship in a kind of “virtual team” even as roles change. This does not amount to “inauthenticity,” but instead requires authentic relational responsiveness. In other words, to be “authentic,” an individual has to respond appropriately to the situation as it really is at any given point of time. It also involves an acknowledgement that reality— both in terms of the relational dynamics between people in an organizational context and in any business environment in general—is not static, but always complex and dynamic.

Many women are accused of being “inauthentic” when they mimic a stereotypical male leadership style, or at least try and conform to tacit expectations about the way in which leaders ought to talk, walk and make decisions. The problem often is that women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they conform to the male leadership stereotype, they are seen as inauthentic, and if they don’t, their leadership is either not recognized at all, or considered inferior to that of men (Eagly and Carli 2007, 64). This is why it is so important to reconsider the meaning of “authenticity.” Women can respond quite “authentically” to the unarticulated expectations that inform one particular situation while resisting these same expectations in another. This does not amount to a lack of authenticity. Instead it is a reflection of the institutionalized prejudices to which women are regularly exposed, and the ways in which particular individuals challenge, resist and navigate them. It is important that organizations pay attention to these dynamics in order to get a better sense of the tacit practices of discrimination that inform the interactions between their members, and to look for ways to challenge and change them. From the perspective of adaptive leadership, it is important to allow individuals to draw on their own strengths, sensibilities and perspectives and to adopt their own unique style as they take responsibility and initiative in leadership roles.

The challenge for gender theorists is to simultaneously challenge socially constructed gender stereotypes and essentialist prejudices and advocate the inclusion and consideration of uniquely female perspectives in leadership discourses. To do so they are forced to argue against the rigid oversimplification of gender roles and traits, while simultaneously insisting that women can offer different perspectives and sensibilities when they are allowed to assume positions of leadership. Linstead and Pullen (2006, 1287) draw on the work of Deleuze and Guattari to address the embodied realities and social practices that perpetuate gender discrimination. This allows them to move away from gender as a social construction, while still seeing it as a social process. More specifically, they disrupt the gender binaries by emphasizing individual differences. They argue that the variety of women’s experiences must be explored. Each individual is engaged in the process of desiring-production, through which social “reality” is produced. By focusing on different interactions and connections between unique individuals over time, our attention is focused on the multiplicity that results from the conception of desire as a force of proliferation. In terms of leadership theory, this research suggests that it is important to investigate the embodied experience of individual leaders in the workplace, and explore all the different ways in which they lead. We will now proceed to explore this possibility in one specific area of leadership, namely vision, especially since this has been indicated as an area in which male leaders typically outperform their female counterparts (Ibarra and Obodaru 2009).

Rethinking vision

In section three we discussed a survey that found that many business practitioners thought women leaders lack “vision.” In the course of our analysis it was suggested that because of women’s propensity for cooperation, sharing information and power, and their fear of over- promising and under-delivering, they often do not claim any grand idea as the product of their own “vision.” As such, women leaders may not always get the credit they deserve. One way to solve this problem is to re- conceive leadership “vision” in more gender-inclusive terms.

This could be accomplished, in part, by simply acknowledging the unique visionary contributions of women leaders. This would help to expand the way in which leadership “vision” is defined. For instance, Vivienne Cox’s leadership style has been described as “organic” by those who work with her. Apparently, she designs incentives and objectives in such a way that the organization naturally finds its own solutions and structures. She encourages everyone in the organization to be thoughtful, innovative and self-regulating. Her leadership style is collaborative, drawing on thought leaders outside of the organization and executives in other business units. Her “vision” therefore emerges through her engagements with others, rather than by means of sketching a fixed picture of what the future of the organization should look like.

This example suggests that “vision” need not be understood as the representation of an envisaged future. In fact, thinking about vision as some possible future state that must be realized fixes an organization’s operations and activities in inflexible terms. This makes it difficult for the organization’s members to respond appropriately to present or future opportunities and challenges and to properly appreciate the significance of past events. In fact, instead of “vision” with its focus on clear-sightedness, neat representations and mimetic strategies, we may do well to consider the more embodied intuitiveness that some philosophers associate with creativity and innovation. Drawing on Bergson, Deleuze (2006, 15) explains that it is up to intuition to show to intelligence which questions are not really questions, as opposed to those that deserve a response. It does this precisely because it assumes duration and offers towards this end an analytical matrix and a method to which intelligence has no access.

Visionary leadership, from this perspective, no longer requires only the capacity to be able to change one’s perspective on the world, or to change the world to fit one’s perceptions of it, but to embrace a radically new conception of time and experience (Linstead and Mullarkey 2003, 1). Reality is not stagnant, and hence leaders have to be capable of being part of, and of processing and engaging with, the qualitative variations of experiences over time and in time. Drawing on Henri Bergson, Linstead and Mullarkey (2003, 9) argue that the “ élan vital,” the vital spirit which appears within our organizational life, is the human impulse to organize. But since the élan vital is a process of creative improvisation, it does not subscribe to the typical organizational strategies of locating, dividing and controlling. These authors (idem 2003, 6) make it clear that the specialized understanding of time as measurable and representable in homogenous units does not allow us to grasp the conscious experience of duration, which is heterogeneous, qualitative and dynamic. From this perspective, something like “vision” cannot be reduced to the creation of measurable time-driven targets, as each unit of time, seen from the perspective of duration, is multiple, unique, and as such not measurable in bits and pieces.

Visionary leadership requires to embrace a radically new conception of time and experience

The kind of traits that are typically associated with inferior leadership, such as being emotional, sensitive, dependent on others, are recast as legitimate ways of operating in the leadership realm. Again here, we can find philosophical support for including these ways of being in the world in our conception of valuable leadership. Deleuze and Guattari (1996, 161) celebrate the unpredictable, uncontrollable overspill of forces that allows us an intuitive grasp of other possibilities of becoming, i.e. different ways of being in the world, and as such, different ways of “leading.” Whereas “effective” visionary leadership may direct the course of individuals or organizations to a predetermined goal based on representations, affective envisioning draws on that which is not yet evident within the established order, and hence, cannot be represented. This kind of envisioning draws on forces that exist but remain imperceptible. Deleuze and Guattari (1996, 161) often draw on Uexkull’s example of the tick, which is blind, deaf and mute, yet is capable of determining its direction quite accurately. The tick is responding to the perceptual signs and significances of its Umwelt. There are no direct causal factors that cause the tick to act, but instead a creative response to a complex range of embodied perceptions. A leader’s perception of the direction in which his/her organization is moving emerge from her/his immersion in relationships, participation in society, experimentation with multi-disciplinary insights, and an ongoing openness towards what he/she is becoming in the process. What all of this points towards is the need to develop embodied practices of resistance in our organizations that challenge gender prejudices and expand our conception of good leadership.

In this chapter, it has become clear that the origins of discriminatory practices in organizations lie hidden in our everyday practices, habits and interactions. There is no doubt that gender stereotypes are alive and well in organizations, and that addressing these prejudices is by no means an easy task. In the first place, one has to acknowledge the ingrained social practices and beliefs about the capabilities of both men and women, which play a role from a very early age and are solidified in our workplaces. To address these prejudices, we all have to start thinking about the feedback and advice we provide to our children and students in the course of their early development and education. Within organizations, we have to develop new role models and seek out mentors who have found their own unique leadership styles. Most importantly, we have to start paying attention to how specific individuals have been shaped and formed through gendered practices. A large part of the work lies in no longer viewing nature and nurture as two separate processes. Instead, we need to realize that we are constantly shaping and reshaping ourselves as thinking, feeling and perceiving bodies in, and through, our everyday workplace practices.

Addressing gender in organizations therefore requires a unique type of research, i.e. the kind of research that allows us to observe people in their various environments, track their developmental paths, and listen to their self-reflections. We also have to create a space within which different types of leadership practices could emerge. We have seen that systemic leadership models allow for a variety of leadership roles and styles to coexist in an organization. The challenge lies in acknowledging these various roles, and making sure that they do not go unrecognized or uncompensated. In the process, we may find that inspiring stories about people’s authentic responses to challenges could be told. We may also notice how men and women intuitively came across visionary ideas and practices in and through their engagement with others. We need organizational environments in which people are free to become the kind of leaders that infuse the world with creative new solutions and practices. It is the possibility of continually becoming a new kind of leader that may allow both men and women to explore the full range of their individual capacities. This will most certainly enable them to serve their organizations, themselves and the broader society to the best of their multiple abilities.


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A CEO's guide to gender equality

Progressive executives know that gender equality is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing. That’s why more CEOs, heads of state, and university leaders are committing themselves to gender-equality goals for the institutions they lead.

But gender equality is proving difficult to achieve. How can companies and public institutions move more quickly? This CEO’s guide synthesizes multiple sources to make quick sense of a complex issue.

The promise of gender equality

Gender equality gets a lot of attention these days, and for good reason: it is not only an issue of fairness but also, for companies, a matter of attracting the best workers, at least half of whom are women. There is also considerable economic value at stake for companies and nations.

A new study by the McKinsey Global Institute finds that the world economy could add trillions of dollars in growth during the next ten years if countries met best-in-region scores for improving women’s participation in the labor force (Exhibit 1). Countries in Latin America, for example, would aim to achieve Chile’s annual rate of increase, 1.9 percentage points, while East and Southeast Asian countries would try to match Singapore’s improvement of 1.1 percentage points a year.

Would you like to learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice ?

The difficulty.

Big as the prize may be, gender equality still eludes companies around the globe. Despite modest improvements in the past few years, women are underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline—especially the senior level (Exhibit 2).

Why is progress in gender equality so hard to achieve? A number of factors are involved, but one leading reason is undoubtedly unconscious bias. Film actress Geena Davis believes that it results, in part, from lopsided male representation in television and film —a long-standing trend observed by the Institute on Gender in Media that she founded. “When we present the data to studios and content creators,” she says, “their jaws are on the ground. In family films, the ratio of male to female characters is 3:1. Shockingly, the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946 . Of the characters with jobs, 81 percent are male.”

Perception gaps may also be an obstacle. McKinsey research on diversity shows that fewer men than women acknowledge the challenges faced by female employees at work. For instance, when asked whether “even with equal skills and qualifications, women have much more difficulty reaching top-management positions,” the gender divide was striking: 93 percent of women agreed with the statement, but just 58 percent of men. And while just 5 percent of women disagreed with the statement, some 28 percent of men did (See exhibit 3).

What’s more, women hear mixed messages about their own careers. “Think of a career like a marathon,” says Facebook chief operating officer and Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg. “Long, grueling, ultimately rewarding. What voices do the men hear from the beginning? ‘You’ve got this. Keep going. Great race ahead of you.’ What do the women hear from day one out of college? ‘You sure you want to run? Marathon’s really long. You’re probably not going to want to finish. Don’t you want kids one day?’ The voices for men get stronger, ‘Yes, go. You’ve got this.’ The voices for women can get openly hostile. ‘Are you sure you should be running when your kids need you at home?’”

The solution

As top executives think about pressing forward with their own gender initiatives, they can start with four prescriptions.

Get committed. The first might seem self-evident: change initiatives must be a strategic priority to have any chance of success. Yet gender equality was a top-ten strategic priority for only 28 percent of companies in 2010, when a third didn’t have it on the strategic agenda at all. The situation improved somewhat by 2015, but there’s still a long way to go—especially given the clear link between leaders’ role modeling and time allocation—and the success rate of transformations , as Exhibit 4 shows.

Broaden your action. Our research shows that gender equality requires executives to intervene across a broad range of factors, setting in motion disparate resources and people for years at a time. The focus in these interventions must be to help women become better leaders—and to design conditions under which they can. Crucial aspects include sponsoring (and not just mentoring) women, neutralizing the effects of maternity leaves on career advancement and wage increases, and evolving the criteria companies use for promotions to include a diversity of leadership styles. To learn how eBay embarked on a journey to bring more women into its top ranks, see “ Realizing the power of talented women .”

Hold challenging conversations. Companies that make progress tend to hold a series of challenging conversations about gender issues among their executive teams. The following five questions can help spur these discussions:

  • Where are the women in our talent pipeline?
  • What skills are we helping women build?
  • Do we provide sponsors as well as role models?
  • Are we rooting out unconscious bias?
  • How much are our policies helping?

Sweat the small stuff. Ian Narev, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia , notes that gender equality requires a bias for action. “I like focusing on processes because it helps us get past any ‘warm and fuzzy’ elements of diversity and into action levers. For example, we discovered we had an anachronistic process that classified women on maternity leave as ‘over quota, unattached,’ which, among other things, essentially meant they couldn’t keep their cell phones or laptops. This policy may not have been initiated by anyone still at the bank, but it had gone unexamined and was preventing us from staying in contact with parents on leave and therefore [from] allowing us to work with them to create more flexible return options. Fixing it was easy; spotting it was harder.”

Are we on the way to creating gender equality in the corporate world? Present trends may not be encouraging, but greater commitment from CEOs, combined with a willingness to stay the course on big transformational-change projects, could help finally resolve an issue that’s long overdue for fixing.

Related Articles


Gender equality: Taking stock of where we are


Why gender diversity at the top remains a challenge


Lessons from the leading edge of gender diversity

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  • v.373; 2021

The Future of Nursing

How to attain gender equality in nursing—an essay, thomas kearns.

1 Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

2 Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Advancement, Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

Tackling stereotypes and assumptions that deter men from nursing is essential to meet the growing shortage of nurses and improve diversity, say Thomas Kearns and Paul Mahon

The covid-19 pandemic shows that where, when, how, and to whom care is delivered has never been more diverse. In today’s healthcare, the people delivering care must be similarly diverse, for the benefit of the profession, its practitioners, and patients. 1 2 3 Yet around 90% of the world’s nurses are women. 4 Calls are being made, as they have before, to examine ways to promote the profession among men to tackle this imbalance. 1 5

Nursing is an inherently human experience: it is done for humans, by humans, and as humans, and in human experience no one gender claims primacy. Men have had, and continue to have, a valuable contribution to make to nursing, not simply because they are male but because they are human. Men enter the profession for the same reason as women—to care for people.

Huge shortage

Nurses are often the first, and sometimes the only, healthcare provider that a patient sees, 6 making them well positioned to respond to healthcare challenges at every level. One of the key challenges affecting the achievement of the sustainable development goals of health and wellbeing, 7 is the worldwide shortage of nurses. Recruiting more men is essential to tackle this shortage.

The world faces a deficit of 13.5 million nurses in the next decade. 4 8 In its first report on the state of the world’s nursing, 6 the World Health Organization estimated that an additional six million nurses will be needed by 2030. This is a 20% increase from the current total global nursing stock of 27.9 million. In addition, the burden of anticipated retirement over the next decade means that 4.7 million new nurses must be recruited just to maintain current staffing levels. 4 It is too early to say what effect the covid-19 pandemic will have on intention to join the profession, but initial estimates are that at least a further 10% will leave. 9 Data to monitor the effect of covid-19 on recruitment and retention of nurses will be vital.

Recent changes in society, healthcare globally, and nursing have seen more men entering the profession. In general, their number varies across regions ( table 1 ) and remains stubbornly low in some countries and clinical specialties such as obstetrics. 10 The reasons for this are unclear but may include cultural perceptions of the role of men and women in society, the status of nursing itself, or the pay and conditions of nurses. For example, a higher proportion of male nurses in some countries may reflect societal perceptions of the role of women, and vice versa. Further research into this area may provide useful insights into gender equity for all.

Percentage of male nurses worldwide*

Why are men under-represented?

Contrary to the common perception that male nurses are a relatively recent phenomenon, men in nursing can be traced to 1600BC ( box 1 ). 16 History speaks of military and religious orders such as the Parabalani (“those who disregard their lives”)—a group of men who cared for people with leprosy in Alexandria in AD416, or St Camillus de Lellis, who in AD1535 vowed to care for sick and dying people. 5 12 The Maltese cross, a symbol of humanitarianism worn by the Knights Hospitaller in 1099, was subsequently adopted by the Nightingale School of Nursing in London. 14

Brief history of men in nursing

  • 250BC: First nursing school in the world started in India. Only men were considered “pure” enough to become nurses 11 12
  • AD416-18: The Theodosian codes refer to the Parabolani—a group of 500 poor men who cared for the lepers of Alexandria 5 12
  • 1095: Order of the Brothers of St Anthony founded (merged with the Knights of Malta in 1775) to care for people inflicted with the medieval disease of St Anthony’s fire 13 14 15
  • 1099: Knight Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem founded to care for sick and injured pilgrims en route to and from the Holy Land 13 15
  • 1119: Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem founded
  • 1180: Order of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit and the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit founded
  • 1192: Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, or the Teutonic Knights, founded
  • 1334: The Beghards (renamed Alexian Brothers after Saint Alexis in 1469) cared for the poor, the lepers, and the “morons and lunatics” of Europe 5 14 16
  • 1535: St John of God began studying under the monks of St Jerome and cared for the ill and mistreated
  • 1585: St Camillus de Lellis became a priest and established a religious order, vowing to care for the sick and dying even with danger to his own life
  • 1600s–1700s: Protestant reformation led to the closure of monasteries and convents across Europe resulting in a loss of records of organized nursing activity 14 16
  • 1780s: Nurse James Durham (or Derham) became the first African American in the United States to practise medicine 12
  • 1850–1950s : War began to alter nursing, and the role of men within it
  • 1859: Florence Nightingale publishes Notes on Nursing , suggesting “every woman is a nurse”
  • 1861–65: American civil war: more women became nurses in civilian life 12
  • 1877: St John Ambulance Association founded (derived from the Knight Hospitallers )
  • 1884: The Male Nurses (Temperance) Cooperation founded
  • 1892: The Male Nurses Mutual Benefit Association founded
  • 1888−1914: Alexian Brothers and other orders built hospitals throughout Chicago, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania. Increasingly, men became nurses at their own social peril, experiencing discrimination, pay inequality, role erosion, and exclusion from formal nurse education 2 17
  • 1914–18: American men were prohibited from practising in the US Army Nursing Corps
  • 1919: The Nurses Act in England barred men from entering the general register. 5 11 14 15 Internationally, men found it difficult to access formal training and where they did, their training was shorter and lacked the curricular content of their female counterparts 5 15
  • 1937: Society of Registered Male Nurses founded
  • 1950s: Men begin to be recognized in nursing in the US, Czechoslovakia, the UK, 2 14 and towards the 1970s, in Denmark and Sweden 15
  • 1971: American Assembly for Men in Nursing founded

By the mid-1800s as men fought and died during the Crimean, American civil, and other wars, more women became nurses. In the years after the introduction of the epochal Nightingale reforms, men were increasingly excluded from formal nurse education and eventually were barred from the English general register. 2 5 11 14 15 17

Combined with the gender based division of labor, and Victorian righteousness regarding the place of women in society, 14 15 16 18 the feminization of caring within the hierarchical male dominated medical model meant men wishing to do the dirty “women’s work” were classified as deviant, undesirable, or unable to get a “real man’s” job. As caring became devalued, more men were forced to find occupations with better pay so they could provide for their families. 16

The decline of the male nurse is a complex product of cultural, historical, economic, and political factors. In modern times, the move from the hospital based apprenticeship model of education to the tertiary setting has helped establish nursing as a profession. But rising entry requirements have not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in remuneration, making nursing a less attractive career option for men and women. In addition, gendered and inaccurate representations of nursing and male nurses limit the public’s perception and affect the recruitment and retention of men. 3 19

Men in the profession have also experienced stigmatization and have been disparately positioned as being both dominant and dominated, victimized and valorized, and of benefiting from the hidden advantages of status shield and status bonus that their gender affords. 20 21

Studies show that adverse stereotypes affect male nurses’ physical and emotional wellbeing, resulting in depression, demotivation, and in some cases their exit from the profession. 19 The perpetuation of such stereotypes and gender based labels injures the profession, preserves segregation, and stifles the pursuance of gender equality for all. 1 6 22 Moreover, they compound the shortage of nurses, limit diversity in the workplace, and deny patients of both genders a holistic caring environment. 1 5 23

What can be done?

Increasing the number of men in nursing is seen as difficult because of the erroneous perception that nursing is a female-only profession, sexist stereotypes of the male nurse being less masculine, 11 13 16 and nurses’ undervalued status and pay. Solutions are as complex as the genesis of the 200 year decline of men in nursing. There is no quick fix, and change requires political, sociocultural, and professional action. Although some solutions will be universal, ultimately each country and culture will have to determine what works best for them. Nurse leaders and politicians should offer long term, strategic solutions beyond mere marketing campaigns. 3

Better public understanding

That is not to say that marketing is not needed. Indeed, given the publicity afforded to the profession during the pandemic, now is an ideal time to set aside the nostalgic view of nursing 3 and capitalize on a contemporary civic conception of caring, competence, and capability throughout clinical settings from community to critical care.

The public has seen nurses caring for ventilated patients, using tablet computers so that family members could say goodbye to loved ones, leading covid testing centres, and innovating in practice. We have heard stories of nurses’ adaptability, resilience, determination, camaraderie, and composure. We have seen them hold patients’ hands and hold governments to account while fighting for proper personal protective equipment. This has given the public a better insight into the art and science of caring in modern healthcare, which we can build on to attract more men, and women, to the profession.

Neither patients nor the public fully understand the complexity of nurses’ work. 3 Highlighting nurses’ roles across domains of practice, registration status, and stage of career could promote a more realistic understanding, not just of men in nursing but of nursing itself. 24 Campaigns such as Nursing Now have raised the status and profile of nursing, and this momentum must be maintained. As part of this, we must de-gender and revalue caring 1 by attaining a gender balance and by continuing to advocate for better pay and conditions for nurses. 25

Better recruitment

Men enter and stay in nursing for many of the same reasons as women, and ultimately, they do so to care for patients. 24 Therefore, recruitment strategies that dispel the myths surrounding the male nurse while promoting the inherent values of nursing are needed. 10 We can look to countries with higher percentages of male nurses for direction.

For men becoming nurses mid-career, graduate entry should be an option—not just in terms of access to a place on the program but also with financial support to facilitate the uptake of that place. As countries seek to increase the number of nursing graduates, consideration could also be given to a specific allocation of places to male applicants to show that men are both missing and needed in nursing. 17 Many male nurse societies were established in the mid-1800s, and such social supports, including the provision of male role models, will help retain men in the profession.

More financial investment

WHO recommends that nursing education be considered a science subject. 6 Therefore, nursing should be afforded the status, pay, and benefits of other science and technology professions. For example, a senior staff nurse (a nurse with over 20 years’ experience) in Ireland earns just under €50 000 (£43 000; $61 000) in base pay a year whereas a pharmacist earns the same after seven years and up to €67 000 after 13 years. 26

Adequate pay and acceptable working conditions, 6 mobility, and opportunity for personal and professional advancement must underpin and be highlighted in recruitment and retention initiatives.

Confrontation of stereotypes

Stereotypical assumptions must be challenged at school and societal level in careers guidance, mainstream and social media, and popular culture so that boys know that nursing is a valid career option. 3 19 27 28 29 This will require greater intersectoral and cross government collaboration from the early years to higher education levels, 6 and for broadcasters to consider how their programming may negatively portray nursing and male nurses. We must robustly voice our objection to any outdated overtures that disenfranchise the profession and the people within it.

We must also promote professional acceptance and challenge stereotypes and assumptions in the profession itself—such as those in relation to male nurses’ sexuality, ability to care, or reasons for entering the profession. For example, the literature often refers to the “hidden advantage” of male nurses and the over-representation of men in leadership positions without examining broadly why this is so.

Although there may be many individual and institutional reasons for this “glass elevator,” including conscious and unconscious bias, hegemonic masculinity, explicit or tacit discrimination, continuity of employment, organizational gendering practices, or the personal and professional characteristics of the individual nurse, 17 30 31 such discussion conflates the problem of attracting men to the profession with the career progression of all nurses. Indeed, examining ways to empower all nurses thorough initiatives such as the International Council of Nurses’ global nurse consultants initiative will help improve health, promote gender equality, and support economic growth. 32

Continuing men’s long history in nursing

Men have a rich and varied history in nursing, a history that is somewhat lost to the last 200 years and the often misquoted preface of Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing that “every woman is a nurse.” Less well quoted, however, is her full contention that “While it has been said and written scores of times, that every woman makes a good nurse I believe, on the contrary, that the very elements of nursing are all but unknown.”

The consequences of the lack of men in nursing can be considered in terms of the effect on male nurses themselves, the profession as a whole, and on the patients that nurses serve.

To increase the number of men in nursing, it is important to highlight to men their historical past and their potential future in a rewarding, contemporary career with myriad clinical, academic, and professional development opportunities. The profession must continue to lobby governments to move beyond mere platitudes and actually provide parity of pay and esteem. We must portray to the public the true scope and complexity of our professional practice, 3 and we must build a profession for all through robust policy that focuses on education, jobs, practice, and leadership.

Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that we have no competing interests.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

This article is part of a series commissioned by The BMJ for the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH). The BMJ peer reviewed, edited, and made the decision to publish. The series, including open access fees, is funded by WISH.

United Nations Sustainable Development Logo

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. There has been progress over the last decades, but the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030.

Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and therefore also half of its potential. But gender inequality persists everywhere and stagnates social progress. On average, women in the labor market still earn 23 percent less than men globally and women spend about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men.

Sexual violence and exploitation, the unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, and discrimination in public office, all remain huge barriers. All these areas of inequality have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: there has been a surge in reports of sexual violence, women have taken on more care work due to school closures, and 70% of health and social workers globally are women.

At the current rate, it will take an estimated 300 years to end child marriage, 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and 47 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments.

Political leadership, investments and comprehensive policy reforms are needed to dismantle systemic barriers to achieving Goal 5 Gender equality is a cross-cutting objective and must be a key focus of national policies, budgets and institutions.

How much progress have we made?

International commitments to advance gender equality have brought about improvements in some areas: child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have declined in recent years, and women’s representation in the political arena is higher than ever before. But the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, and where all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. In fact, that goal is probably even more distant than before, since women and girls are being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are they any other gender-related challenges?

Yes. Worldwide, nearly half of married women lack decision-making power over their sexual and reproductive health and rights. 35 per cent of women between 15-49 years of age have experienced physical and/ or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.1 in 3 girls aged 15-19 have experienced some form of female genital mutilation/cutting in the 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, where the harmful practice is most common with a high risk of prolonged bleeding, infection (including HIV), childbirth complications, infertility and death.

This type of violence doesn’t just harm individual women and girls; it also undermines their overall quality of life and hinders their active involvement in society.

Why should gender equality matter to me?

Regardless of where you live in, gender equality is a fundamental human right. Advancing gender equality is critical to all areas of a healthy society, from reducing poverty to promoting the health, education, protection and the well-being of girls and boys.

What can we do?

If you are a girl, you can stay in school, help empower your female classmates to do the same and fight for your right to access sexual and reproductive health services. If you are a woman, you can address unconscious biases and implicit associations that form an unintended and often an invisible barrier to equal opportunity.

If you are a man or a boy, you can work alongside women and girls to achieve gender equality and embrace healthy, respectful relationships.

You can fund education campaigns to curb cultural practices like female genital mutilation and change harmful laws that limit the rights of women and girls and prevent them from achieving their full potential.

The Spotlight Initiative is an EU/UN partnership, and a global, multi-year initiative focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls – the world’s largest targeted effort to end all forms of violence against women and girls.

gender equality in leadership essay

Facts and figures

Goal 5 targets.

  • With only seven years remaining, a mere 15.4 per cent of Goal 5 indicators with data are “on track”, 61.5 per cent are at a moderate distance and 23.1 per cent are far or very far off track from 2030 targets.
  • In many areas, progress has been too slow. At the current rate, it will take an estimated 300 years to end child marriage, 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and 47 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments.
  • Political leadership, investments and comprehensive policy reforms are needed to dismantle systemic barriers to achieving Goal 5. Gender equality is a cross-cutting objective and must be a key focus of national policies, budgets and institutions.
  • Around 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity. Nearly 2.4 Billion Women Globally Don’t Have Same Economic Rights as Men  
  • 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent women’s full economic participation. Nearly 2.4 Billion Women Globally Don’t Have Same Economic Rights as Men
  • In 2019, one in five women, aged 20-24 years, were married before the age of 18. Girls | UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children

Source: The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023

5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

5.3 Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation

5.4 Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate

5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decisionmaking in political, economic and public life

5.6 Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences

5.A  Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws

5.B Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women

5.C Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels

He for She campaign

United Secretary-General Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women

Every Woman Every Child Initiative

Spotlight Initiative

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

UN Population Fund: Gender equality

UN Population Fund: Female genital mutilation

UN Population Fund: Child marriage

UN Population Fund: Engaging men & boys

UN Population Fund: Gender-based violence

World Health Organization (WHO)

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Gender Statistics

Fast Facts: Gender Equality

gender equality in leadership essay

Infographic: Gender Equality

gender equality in leadership essay

The Initiative is so named as it brings focused attention to this issue, moving it into the spotlight and placing it at the centre of efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

An initial investment in the order of EUR 500 million will be made, with the EU as the main contributor. Other donors and partners will be invited to join the Initiative to broaden its reach and scope. The modality for the delivery will be a UN multi- stakeholder trust fund, administered by the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office, with the support of core agencies UNDP, UNFPA and UN Women, and overseen by the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General.

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Profiles of Change: For 7 Women, a Heartfelt Cause Became a Mission

Leaders from around the world explained how they took their passions and concerns and turned them into action.

A portrait of a smiling woman dressed in a bright and colorful top with traditional African patterns, wearing a gold choker and large gold dangling earrings. She is sitting in an egg-shaped wicker hanging chair, surrounded by plants, on an enclosed porch.

By The New York Times

A financial administrator with deteriorating sight seeks help at an advocacy organization for visually impaired people and rises to become its chief executive. A former government spokeswoman with a love of cooking starts a restaurant to train refugees in culinary skills. A Lao weaver hoping to preserve a traditional craft creates a way to support it. Seven women from around the world explain how they took their passions and concerns and turned them into action. The interviews were edited and condensed.

Kerry Brodie, Refugee Training Program

Dr. wanjiru kamau-rutenberg, leadership, virginia jacko, accessibility and education, veomanee douangdala, crafts, dr. tiffani jenae johnson, pediatric medicine, sigrid rausing, philanthropy and publishing, emilienne de león aulina, economic opportunity.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Interview by Susan Bloom

Kerry Brodie, 33, was a student at the International Culinary Institute in 2016 when she founded Emma’s Torch , a restaurant training program for refugees, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking who have work authorization in the United States. Before founding Emma’s Torch, she had worked as the director of communications for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and as global press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, a nongovernmental national organization.

You started Emma’s Torch, a network of restaurants and temporary locations in New York and soon to be in Washington, D.C., to provide culinary training to refugees to help them build new lives in their adopted communities. Why?

As the daughter of South African Jewish immigrants and the great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, we’ve seen the worst in humanity and what can happen when people turn a blind eye to refugees. I’ve always felt that we have a huge privilege and responsibility to make the world a better place.

Why did your activism revolve around the restaurant industry?

I saw food as a powerful vehicle for giving on-the-job training in a real-world setting that generates income to offset the program. And with the restaurant industry accounting for an estimated 8 to 10 percent of all jobs in New York City, we saw training in this field as an entree to long-term employment opportunities in restaurants owned by our industry partners, all of whom are eager to invest in our students.

How does your program work?

Every full-time staff member at Emma’s Torch teaches our students vital culinary skills while ensuring the quality and consistency of our menu items, which we describe as “familiar dishes with a global twist.” Students are with us for 440 hours — 11 weeks — and receive full-time wages. Upon their graduation, they get the opportunity to create a dish for their celebration, some of which end up on our menu. Teaching students about different ingredients and kitchen equipment also helps them learn English, a result that’s both delicious and accomplishes our larger goals.

How many refugees have come through your program?

To date, we’ve worked with 305 refugees from 42 different countries, including Ukraine, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Myanmar, Ghana and Haiti, creating more than $700 million of increased wages (measured by how much more they’re earning after graduation than before). We seek out students who want to enter the work force, have clear goals and have work authorization and, while not all graduate, we’ve had so many success stories. Among them: A Syrian student who graduated in 2018 and recently fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant; we brought our entire current class to visit and celebrate. Our students reflect the current microcosm of world events; for example, we’ve recently seen an influx of refugees from Afghanistan as well as from Venezuela following the humanitarian and economic assistance made available to Venezuelan refugees in the United States this year.

What are your plans for Emma’s Torch?

Since founding our original restaurant in Brooklyn in 2016, we’ve opened several other locations throughout New York City (including some pop-ups); started a catering business; and will open our first cafe in Washington, D.C., this December; we hope to open a larger location in Maryland in 2024. We’re on track to graduate more students in 2023 (about 150) than we have in the last three years combined and expect to grow that by another 10 percent in 2024.

How is Emma’s Torch helping to change the refugee experience?

There are 100 million displaced people in the world today and an increased demand for programs like ours, which help refugees stand on their own two feet based on the power of a career. We’d love to put ourselves out of business one day, but right now we’re scaling up to meet the need.

Nairobi, Kenya

Interview by Ginanne Brownell

Since earning her doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, 45, has focused on helping other women reach their educational and career goals in fields including agriculture, climate and technology through organizations like the AWARD fellowship program, which has been partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and U.S.A.I.D. Most recently, she has been working with Schmidt Futures to set up Black Women in Executive Leadership, to mentor and connect Black women globally and help organizations like the New York Stock Exchange make boardrooms more diverse. Born in Kenya, she lived, studied and worked in the United States, and now lives again in Kenya.

You have made a career of creating programs that help women and put them on a career path. Why did you found Akili Dada, the girls’ education and mentoring organization?

I was in grad school in Minnesota, and I was feeling like the things we were talking about in class had no relation to the reality that I knew on the ground. And actually, Akili Dada was almost my way of grounding myself. It started off as a small project. The first scholarships my husband and I funded from our wedding money. It was for really bright girls from poor families across Kenya who had been admitted into national schools but whose parents could not afford to pay for them to take those slots.

Any particular women that you helped over your 10 years with Akili Dada that stick out in your mind?

I was in London a few months ago and connected with one of them who’s at Google in Ireland. Just bought her first house. She’s an engineer. Another one is in Seattle. She now works as a cybersecurity engineer.

So why did you leave?

I came up in a feminist movement that had founders who weren’t leaving. And those institutions, that had been so robust when I was studying them, were weakened as a result of leadership that hadn’t been handed over intergenerationally.

Akili Dada was never a job for me, it was not my career. It was the side hustle that I was doing to keep myself mentally sane and healthy.

After working as an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, you served as the director of two programs — African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and Rise for the World — that run fellowships. Explain your new project, B-WEL, which focuses on Black women executives.

I’ve spent the last year and a half designing the program within Schmidt Futures [the U.S.-based philanthropy funded by Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, and his wife, Wendy]. We launched officially in September, and gathered our first cohort. Half are Black women in science and technology, with a focus on artificial intelligence. The other Black women are leaders and executives working in the women’s leadership space.

B-WEL drives systemic impact by identifying and bringing together Black women in these fields, connecting them to each other, and also cross-fertilizing and widening the scope of impact that each woman has.

What is an example of a project you are working on to bring change to the boardroom?

The New York Stock Exchange has a curated, vetted list of 700 women available to be recruited onto the boards of exchange-listed companies. We are partnering with that program to make sure that they have a pipeline of Black women that they can recommend to their listed companies.

Do you think this will help get companies thinking differently about Black female executives?

It is flipping the narrative on who Black women are and where Black women are. Often the conversation and the narrative about Black women is they are disempowered and in need of rescuing. These women do not need rescuing.

Interview by Shivani Vora

Virginia Jacko, 81, was a financial executive at Purdue University when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that eventually caused her total blindness. She is now the president and chief executive of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a service and advocacy organization that provides blind and visually impaired people with education and training. Besides expanding services for the visually impaired in Florida, she successfully pushed some candidates to bring their websites into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act during the 2020 election — a move that inspired changes to

In 2001, you moved from West Lafayette, Ind., to Miami to take advantage of Miami Lighthouse’s services. How did you go from being a client to heading the organization?

I fell in love with the mission. On my first day, I had no idea what they could do for me. When a case manager asked me what my goal was, all I had to say was “to cook myself a meal without getting burned.” I had no idea that blind people could do anything sighted people can.

Miami Lighthouse asked me to become treasurer of the board because of my strong financial background. When the C.E.O. left, I became interim C.E.O., and then the board appointed me to be the first-ever blind president and C.E.O. of the group.

What gaps did you identify in resources available to blind people, and how did you set out to fill those holes?

I found gaps in programming, accessibility and technology and started programs to address them. We had funding for only 23 babies in our Blind Babies Program , for example, and I worked to build it up. Now, we serve more than 130 babies annually.

And I expanded the Florida Heiken Children’s Vision Program . Underprivileged children often have no access to eye care, and I worked on an initiative to address that. Five mobile clinics travel around the state, going to different schools, partnering with local optometrists to give children eye exams, prescription glasses and referrals to help prevent blindness related to certain eye diseases, injuries and abnormalities. This program served 18,000 children last year.

Also, Braille music was very hard for blind musicians to come by, but Miami Lighthouse now has a Braille music distance learning curriculum that is accessible to musicians all over the world.

One of your biggest moves during your tenure was to get several of the 2020 presidential candidates during the 2020 elections to change their websites to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. What were these sites missing?

The easiest thing for any entity to show that it cares about digital accessibility is to put an accessibility statement on its website that includes a phone number and an email to reach out to.

Many of the candidates didn’t have this statement or a widget to adjust the contrast and font size. With the widget installed, one keystroke is all it takes to make that adjustment.

The campaigns of Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang contacted Miami Lighthouse and sought my counsel to ensure that their websites were compliant.

The feedback myself and my I.T. team (all blind themselves) provided the Biden administration is now reflected on

Do you see progress for persons with sight disabilities in the years since you started advocating for people with impaired sight?

One thing that is very slow is getting meaningful jobs for the blind and visually impaired. Employers need to provide them with the resources to succeed, which are as simple as having the right equipment or computers.

What are the biggest remaining impediments to addressing some of the inequities?

No. 1 is digital accessibility. Website accessibility is this generation’s wheelchair ramp.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Interview by Deborah L. Jacobs

Raised in Luang Prabang, Laos, Veomanee Douangdala, 48, learned to weave by sitting beside her mother, a renowned weaver. As foreign tourists arrived in the once sleepy town, she conceived of souvenirs inspired by traditional crafts and was a founder of Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise that enables weavers, most of whom are women, to support themselves by producing handicrafts. Her efforts have helped hundreds of women in remote villages preserve and promote centuries-old skills, instead of taking menial jobs in big cities.

What does Ock Pop Tok mean?

It’s Lao for “East meets West.” I learned to weave from my mother, and was working with her in 1999 when I met Joanna Smith, a British photographer documenting rural development. Together we visited Buddhist temples and conceived a textile collection inspired by Lao architecture. My mother’s weavers turned our designs into clothing, using Western color palettes. We sold these pieces from a tiny shop that we named Ock Pop Tok.

Did either of you have a business background?

I grew up watching my mother trade with Thailand. After high school, I worked at my uncle’s hotel, where I learned about tourism — and to speak English.

How do you create economic opportunities for women in rural locations?

For 21 years, our Village Weavers Project has helped more than 15 ethnic groups create items that apply their specific skills. Our 250 current artists include the Oma, who embroider coasters with unique designs like those on their traditional clothing. Tai Lue villagers weave fabric that’s turned into handbags and toys. Khmu communities adapt the jungle vine bags that they use to gather firewood into fashionable totes. We pay by the piece and sell the products online , in our gift shop and wholesale . With aid from the government and various NGOs, we provide the raw materials. Within five years most can resupply themselves.

Because free trade is part of your mission, your prices are higher than those of some other purveyors. What makes buyers willing to pay them?

At our Living Crafts Center , a two-acre retreat on the Mekong, there’s a loom house where visitors can watch our weavers. When people see how hard it is to finish one piece, they are willing to pay a fair price.

How have you spread the word?

We’ve attended the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe many times. At first few people there knew about Laos. We explained that these magic textiles came from this little country. For the past two years, we have also exhibited our home décor products at Maison & Objet , in Paris.

What’s next?

Attract more tourists to our shop, bed-and-breakfast and cafe at our Living Crafts Center. This year we built a landing so visitors can come by boat. People who arrive by tuk-tuk can’t believe what’s down the dirt road.

Sacramento, Calif.

Alix Strauss

Interview by Alix Strauss

Dr. Tiffani Jenae Johnson, 41, is a pediatric emergency physician at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. She has been a leader in raising awareness within the medical community of inequities in care and outcomes of children based on race, ethnicity and income.

As part of your mission, you are an advocate for populations that are underrepresented, underserved and historically marginalized. How did that become your focus?

I never show up as a woman in medicine; I always show up as a Black woman. When I go to my clinical practice, I see children who look like me with inequities and whose stories historically have not been told. Identification is important. Racism has permeated the medical fields. I want to give children, whose pain and dreams are real, a voice so they can live and thrive.

My mission is to highlight the inequities that exist, understand the root causes and be an educator and abolitionist working to dismantle the structures that prevent children from achieving the highest level of health and well-being.

Where does your passion come from?

My childhood and family trauma shaped my mission. My mother, a school board attorney and public defender, was the first child advocate and champion for justice I knew. Resilience to racism, sexism, Jim Crow, physical and sexual abuse, and murder course through my veins; that helps me push past barriers.

You are the first Black female tenured associate professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis Health, and president-elect of the Academic Pediatric Association. What have been your biggest challenges in achieving these titles?

In pediatrics, race was the greatest barrier; in emergency medicine, it’s gender and race. We are hugely underrepresented and undervalued.

What has been the biggest disappointment you’ve seen within the medical system?

The lack of urgency, especially with money and resources, devoted to addressing issues that are impacting minoritized children. Those huge inequities have life-altering impacts on children.

How are you working with the Academic Pediatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics to change that?

I’m working with both these groups to move beyond acknowledging that racism exists, and toward steps that pediatricians need to take to address racism. At the American Academy of Pediatrics, I’m focusing on eliminating race-based medicine in clinical algorithms and working to identify policies where race is inappropriately used.

When it comes to racism and child health, where do you feel the most hopeful?

I am most hopeful about the next generation changing the landscape of pediatrics. Mentoring the next generation of Black women in pediatrics is central to my mission. I’m inspired by current students speaking up and showing a different social consciousness.

Interview by Farah Nayeri

Sigrid Rausing’s grandfather made a fortune for himself and his descendants when he established the Tetra Pak packaging company in Sweden. Ms. Rausing, 61, who lives in London, chairs a grant-making foundation, one of the largest in Britain, that funds human rights and social causes. She is also an author and the publisher of Granta magazine and Granta Books.

Why did you get involved with philanthropy?

Doing fieldwork for my Ph.D. on a collective farm and village in Estonia in ’92-93, I was struck by the political repression and poverty. So I set up a foundation focusing on human rights and on building up civil society. We have since widened what we do.

Some people get involved in philanthropy for social status: to get board seats and gala invitations. I guess that’s not in your nature.

I’d pay not to go to fancy dinner parties! I do go to things; I’m not a recluse. I sit on some boards and give money to organizations that are not doing human-rights work. I like groups that are very concrete and limited in their aims. But really my main interest in life is writing. It’s words.

Do you feel that your foundation has made a difference?

I do believe that civil society as a sector holding the state to account is very valuable.

One of your grantees, the Human Dignity Trust, helped push for Mauritius to decriminalize same-sex relations. Can you talk about your work in L.G.B.T.Q. rights?

That’s an area where I do feel we made a difference, and which we were involved with from the beginning. Human Dignity Trust focuses specifically on decriminalization, which is a nice, narrow niche, and we funded them since they were very young.

You recently gave up the editing of Granta, the 134-year-old London-based literary magazine, after 10 years. Why?

I think 10 years is enough. I also had a very sad thing happen: My closest friend — Johanna Ekstrom, a prolific writer — was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2022. She asked me to finish her last book, which existed in 13 handwritten notebooks. I was so absorbed in that work and in my grief that I decided it was a good time to step aside.

Your book “Mayhem” was a moving memoir of tragic episodes of addiction in your family. You seem to want to do more writing.

I do. I have more or less finished another book: the story of my husband, Eric Abraham, an independent journalist in South Africa [now a producer] who was placed under house arrest and banned in 1976 before fleeing to Britain. The interesting thing that unraveled much later was that the man who smuggled him out, posing as a student activist, was in fact a security police agent. Eric’s father, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, had betrayed him to the security police. That was terrible and complicated and dramatic.

Are you going to continue as the publisher of Granta Books?

Definitely. I love being able to bring projects other publishers wouldn’t do.

Mexico City

Interview by Ellen Rosen

Emilienne de León Aulina, 68, has focused her career on helping charities and nongovernmental organizations in Mexico. As executive director of the International Network of Women’s Funds, she worked to help organizations strengthen their base — for example, to improve their grant-writing abilities and to network with other donors and foundations. In 2020, she was a co-founder of Emmana Social to focus on fostering sustainability and expanding women’s financial opportunities — including those of Indigenous peoples and fisherwomen. More broadly, she has worked to broaden philanthropy in Mexico and cultivate a culture of giving to social causes.

What brought you to this work?

My parents were very leftist — anarchists, really — and it has been key to my work. Your mother and father give you their culture and shape the way you see life.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishments at the International Network of Women’s Funds, now known as Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds?

We did a lot toward making women’s funds grow globally. When I started, we had 30 funds distributing $30 million annually worldwide, but when I left in 2020 there were 44 funds distributing $200 million to grass-roots feminist organizations worldwide.

In addition, I negotiated with the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands a special 40 million euro ($43.6 million) grant to four “global south” women’s funds over four years to help small, medium and large women’s organizations. It was a big achievement. The consortium did great work and because of that they received a second grant from the Dutch government of €80 million.

What are you working on now?

I am working on the “Global Alliance for Care,” an initiative launched by the National Institute of Women in Mexico and U.N. Women following the 2021 Generation Equality Forum . It’s made up of representatives of national and local governments, the private sector, and academic and philanthropic institutions, among others. Its main objective is to expand services such as those that provide care for children, the elderly and the disabled. We hope to increase the recognition that caregiving falls overwhelmingly on women’s shoulders. Such work has often been invisible and unpaid, but it has to be rewarded.

Also, through Emmana Social, I am helping fisherwomen. I know people will question this, but fisherwomen do exist. I became involved through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which asked my organization to facilitate, in 2022, a set of meetings with fisherwomen from Mexico and Chile. The Chilean women were a world away because they had already created a federation of thousands of fisherwomen and successfully pushed for gender equality laws for their industry.

The Mexico women said, “We want to be like them.” To do this, I am helping them to create Marea Sostenible, an NGO, which means “sustainable tide” when translated. They hope to bring together women from the fishery sector to create a network and to promote the rights and better working conditions and bring more attention to the environment.

What motivates you to move on to a new organization?

I have discovered that I can take organizations that are really in bad shape and rebuild them. But you need new blood — younger people — that can come and do the work.

So it’s important to leave organizations when they are in good shape, because then you open the space for others to continue.

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The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW Washington, DC 20500

Fact Sheet: National Strategy on Gender Equity and   Equality

The Biden-Harris Administration issues first-ever national gender strategy to advance the full participation of all people – including women and girls – in the United States and around the world.

[Click here to read the Gender Strategy Report] President Biden and Vice President Harris believe that advancing gender equity and equality is fundamental to every individual’s economic security, safety, health, and ability to exercise their most basic rights.  It is also essential to economic growth and development, democracy and political stability, and the security of nations across the globe.  Ensuring that all people, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to realize their full potential is, therefore, both a moral and strategic imperative. Yet no country in the world has achieved gender equality—and we are at an inflection point.  The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a caregiving crisis that have magnified the challenges that women and girls, especially women and girls of color, have long faced.  It has also exacerbated a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence in the United States and around the world.  These overlapping crises have underscored that, for far too long, the status quo has left too many behind. This moment demands that we build back better.  It requires that we acknowledge and address longstanding gender discrimination and the systemic barriers to full participation that have held back women and girls.  And it requires that we bring the talent and potential of all people to bear to face the challenges of our time.  That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration established the White House Gender Policy Council, charged with leading the development of the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, which sets forth an aspirational vision and a comprehensive agenda to advance gender equity and equality in domestic and foreign policy—and demonstrates that families, communities, and nations around the world stand to benefit.

The strategy identifies ten interconnected priorities: 1) economic security; 2) gender-based violence; 3) health; 4) education; 5) justice and immigration; 6) human rights and equality under the law; 7) security and humanitarian relief; 8) climate change; 9) science and technology; and 10) democracy, participation, and leadership.  These priorities are inherently linked and must be tackled in concert. The strategy also adopts an intersectional approach that considers the barriers and challenges faced by those who experience intersecting and compounding forms of discrimination and bias related to gender, race, and other factors, including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, and socioeconomic status.  This includes addressing discrimination and bias faced by Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American people, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, and other people of color.   Strategic priorities include:   Improving economic security. As we recover from the pandemic, we have the opportunity to build an economy that works for women and their families.  To build back better, we will:

  • Ensure that people have equal access to good jobs, including by addressing persistent gender discrimination and systemic barriers to full workforce participation. 
  • Invest in care infrastructure and care workers to help rebuild the economy and lower costs for working families. 
  • Dismantle the barriers to equal opportunity in education that undermine the ability to compete on a level playing field, recognizing that education affects future economy security.

Preventing and responding to gender-based violence.  Gender-based violence is endemic in homes, schools, workplaces, the military, communities, and online—and far too often a hallmark of conflict and humanitarian crises.  It exacts tremendous costs on the safety, health and economic security of survivors and their families.  To prevent and response to gender-based violence, we will:

  • Work to eliminate gender-based violence wherever it occurs by developing and strengthening national and global laws and policies, investing in comprehensive services for survivors, and increasing prevention efforts. 
  • Address sexual violence in conflict settings; the elevated risk of violence facing women human rights defenders, activists, and politicians; human trafficking both at home and abroad; and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 
  • Promote the safety and fair treatment of all people in the justice and immigration systems.

Increasing access to health care.  Health care is a right—not a privilege.  All people deserve access to high-quality, affordable health care, regardless of their zip code, income, ethnicity, race, or any other factor.  To protect, improve, and expand access to health care, we will:

  • Build on the historic work of the Affordable Care Act and continue to expand and improve health care globally. 
  • Defend the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion in the United States, established in Roe v. Wade, and promote access to sexual and reproductive health and rights both at home and abroad. 
  • Address the pernicious effects of health inequity, including by addressing the maternal mortality crisis in the United States, which has a disproportionate impact on Black and Native American women, and by reducing maternal mortality and morbidity abroad.

Advancing democracy, rights and full participation.  Supporting women’s and girls’ full participation in social, economic, civic, and political life—and ensuring they are represented at the tables where decisions are made—is essential to progress in every other area and a precondition to advancing strong and sustainable democracies.  To advance democracy, rights, and full participation, we will:

  • Work to advance gender equity and equality in the law and ensure that rights on paper are fully implemented in practice.  
  • Work towards gender parity and diversity in leadership roles, including in peace processes, national security and defense, global health and humanitarian efforts, and in the private sector. 
  • Promote the leadership of women and girls in addressing the challenge of climate change and seek to close gender gaps in STEM fields so that women and girls can shape the workforce of the future. 

Realizing this bold vision is a government-wide responsibility that cuts across the work of the Biden-Harris Administration in both domestic and foreign affairs.  Implementing this strategy will require the leadership of every White House office and executive agency.  This strategy is not just words on paper; it is a roadmap to deliver results for the American people and our partners around the world. And it builds on the work the Biden-Harris Administration has already done to advance gender equity and equality at home and abroad.  Through the American Rescue Plan, we have provided immediate relief to women and families, fully vaccinating over two-thirds of eligible Americans, reopening schools, providing direct payments to individuals, investing in domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and services, and helping child care providers keep their doors open.  The American Rescue Plan also expanded the Child Tax Credit, distributing monthly payments to tens of millions of American families covering over 60 million children.  Building on the American Rescue Plan, the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better Agenda are once-in-a-generation investments to support America’s working families to rebuild the economy and support women and families.  Among its many transformative investments, the budget framework calls for: cutting taxes for middle class families with children, investing in the care economy and the care workforce, and lowering health care costs.  To advance economic security for women and girls globally, we have established a Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund, which supports efforts to address the impact that COVID-19, climate change, conflict, and crisis have on the economic security of women and their families.  And we have restored America’s leadership on the rights of women and girls on the world stage. We have also taken action to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including through the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Military and by directing the Department of Education to review Title IX regulations, guidance, and policies to ensure students receive an education free from sexual violence.  We continue working with Congress on meaningful legislative action, including through championing the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which passed the House in March with bipartisan support, and signing into law the Amendments to the Victims of Crime Act. And we have committed to updating and strengthening our strategy to combat gender-based violence around the world. To advance women’s health around the world, the Biden-Harris Administration has revoked the Global Gag Rule and reinstated funding to the UNFPA.  In the United States, the Administration has called for historic investments to respond to the maternal mortality crisis.  The President also launched a whole-of-government effort to respond to the recent Texas law which blatantly violates women’s constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion under Roe v. Wade .  

To inform our ongoing and future efforts to advance gender equity and equality at home and abroad, the strategy calls for continued accountability, consultation, and engagement as we work towards our collective vision for gender equity and equality at home and abroad.  Its implementation will guide strategic planning and budgeting, policy and program development, measurement and data, and management and training.  We look forward to partnering with Congress, local, state, Tribal, and territorial governments, civil society, the private sector, foreign governments, and multilateral institutions to drive progress towards the objectives outlined in this strategy.  In doing so, we will advance economic growth, health and safety, and the security of our nation and the world.

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